If you’re coping with loss, I hope this can help

What to do when you’re trying to heal from change

Illustrations by Kaki Okumura

I lost two close family members within two weeks this year. It was both shocking and devastating to me, and among my own sadness I had to watch my family go through one of the most difficult and painful experiences of their life.

In fact it wasn’t just my family, but I also watched a lot of my loved ones go through a devastating loss this year. Because loss is not just death of a family member: it can be the loss of a close relationship, loss of health, loss of a graduation, losing a job, a miscarriage, or even losing hope of a dream.

As I looked to heal myself and also support those who I cared about deeply, I found myself looking to Japanese insight and historical practices surrounding death. It was an outlook which gave me comfort, and a tradition I was glad to have had family guide me through, and as I reflect on this year, perhaps it could be helpful to you too.

Whether you’ve experienced major loss this year, or just wish to support a loved one who may be grieving, I hope this could be insightful or at least a bit comforting to you.

Loss is not the same as gone

Japanese culture, while not overtly religious, has a lot of its culture rooted in historical belief systems, namely in Shintoism and Buddhism. The belief systems co-exist together, as their beliefs can complement each other.

Shintoism is regarded as a nature religion, and instead of gods there are spirits in nature that look after those in the living realm, spirits of people who have passed before us. This is often regarded as a form of Buddhist reincarnation, but rather than a reflection of karma, it’s simply seen as the next stage in life. Those who passed before us come back as things in nature to look after the living — such as the trees, sun, wind, seas, and sometimes wild animals. As life and energy are seen as circular, they’re never quite gone, and their influence always remains.

To hold the view that loss is not the same as gone.

Grieving takes time

There is a Japanese grieving practice known as “shijuku-nichi” which literally translates to 49 days. It’s a period of mourning for 49 days after a close family member passes, where on the 49th day you bury their ashes in the family grave.

While the 49 days traditionally refers to the 7 judgement days conducted over 7 day intervals for the person who had passed, it is now more widely considered a period of grieving for the living.

You would spend the time meeting with family members and honoring memories, praying together, saying thank you, saying goodbye, and letting yourself acknowledge the loss before the final burial date. While mourning is not the same as being depressed all the time, the 49 days acknowledges that it still requires time and space.

Take your time grieving.

Share your grief with others

New Year’s is Japan’s biggest holiday, and the celebration tends to be the most important in a typical Japanese household, but when you lose a close family member, as a family you instead decide to refrain from celebrating New Year’s and spend the following year in mourning.

It’s a practice known as mochu, and those who are aware of your loss are also to refrain from celebrating the New Year in front of you as well. Rather than a time to just be sad, it’s really seen as a way to show solidarity and support for one another.

Because to share loss and communicate grief with others can do a lot to alleviate the pain.

Seek support from other people.

Have flexibility in approaching grief

Views and beliefs surrounding death tend to be quite flexible in Japan, and as more Japanese adopt other religions, it’s not unheard of for someone to have a Shinto funeral, a Buddhist altar in their house, and then recite Christian prayers for when they’re looking for guidance from passed loved ones.

Because grief is a very personal experience, and there is no one correct way to do it. You may prefer time alone, or you may seek the company of others. You may find yourself keeping yourself busy, or you may find that reflecting and honoring old memories to be the best way to work through your emotions. It’ll change over time, and it’ll most likely be a combination of things as you work through loss. Let it be personal to you.

Grief is a personal experience, so do what you feel is best for you.

And as a final note

If you’ve experienced loss this year, let yourself work through whatever it is you need to do, and seek professional help if you need it. Above all, remember to be kind to yourself, take care of yourself, and I wish you all the best.

Born in Dallas, raised in New York and Tokyo. I care about helping others learn to live a better, healthier life. My site: www.kakikata.space 🌱

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